A dramatic cascade of events in the past 24 hours has scrambled the campaign of a Republican front-runner in Colorado and is about to throw an upcoming state GOP assembly into chaos.
Walker Stapleton, an establishment favorite and Colorado’s sitting state treasurer, today said a company his campaign hired to help him get on the June primary ballot via petitions committed fraud. Because of that, he asked the Secretary of State not to count those petitions, meaning he will now have to get his name on the ballot a different way— something he never planned.
The stunning announcement comes a week after one of his Republican rivals accused him of hiring a firm that used dubious characters to illegally gather petitions, a charge Stapleton’s campaign initially brushed off.
But after acknowledging those accusations have merit and asking to be removed from the ballot via the petition process, the 43-year-old Republican with a background in real estate and banking now must go through a gauntlet of the GOP’s activist base at the state assembly. The major GOP event takes place on Saturday at the University of Colorado in Boulder and will shape the race for governor in this closely watched swing state.
For weeks, Stapleton’s campaign said its candidate, a Bush-family cousin who had raised the most campaign cash and racked up Super PAC-style support from the likes of John Elway and beer baron Pete Coors, had “no plans” of going through the assembly process.
Now he is forced to.
In Colorado, there are two paths to a primary ballot for governor. A candidate can gather enough valid petitions from Republicans around the state and get directly on the ballot, or a candidate can try to earn 30 percent of the votes of some 4,200 GOP delegates at the party’s state nominating assembly.
Before today, Saturday’s cage match of the grassroots would have pitted Cynthia Coffman, the state’s attorney general, against a well-connected first-time candidate named Barry Farah, a county commissioner named Lew Gaiter, an ex-mayor named Greg Lopez, and a former Donald Trump campaign official named Steve Barlock.
The assembly was already shaping up as a free-for-all, but now, “Saturday is going to be chaos,” said George Athanasopoulos, an undecided delegate to the GOP assembly who has run for Congress and also state party chair.
With Stapleton’s sudden plunge into the assembly, the stakes shoot up for both him and Coffman. The assembly is the only chance for either of them to make the June 26 ballot. Coffman has been focusing her campaign on this strategy for months; Stapleton’s entire operation now takes a breakneck turn with four days to go.
Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Stapleton boasted of a “strong grass-roots effort,” noted he has won straw polls from Weld to Mesa counties and said he felt good about going through the assembly. “You’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt in life and we’re going to play the hand that we’re dealt to the best of our ability, and I like our chances a lot, I really do.”
At the assembly, each candidate for governor has the opportunity to give a speech as part of an effort to win over votes from the thousands of delegates who have been selected by their peers through a series of meetings in their counties and neighborhoods going back to March.
For some Republicans in Colorado, it might really come down to what they hear from the stage of the convention.
“I don’t have any idea who I am going to vote for yet,” said delegate Dick Ross who runs the Conejos County GOP. “The man or woman who can get all the people up there on the stage doing the hoo-rah-rah-rah and get the most support is probably the one who is going to get out in the state and actually get the most done. And typically does that mean I’m going to vote for that person? No, but I’m watching to see which one can generate the most interest to get out and get the vote out.”
In recent years, the state assembly has proven an unexpected launching pad for statewide campaigns that drew national interest. In 2016, a little-known county commissioner named Darryl Glenn blew the roof off the assembly with a barn-burning speech that earned him 70 percent of the vote in a sprawling U.S. Senate primary, allowing him to knock out six of his rivals on the spot.
“Every candidate thinks they are going to replicate that,” says Rich Sokol, chairman of the Arapahoe County Republican Party.
On Tuesday, state party officials were scrambling to figure out what to do with Stapleton since the assembly speaking order had already been set. In a sign of just how close the candidate is to the GOP nerve center, Stapleton’s campaign attorney, Chris Murray, had to recuse himself from advising the state Republican Party since the GOP runs the statewide event, according to party spokesman Daniel Cole.
“There are a couple things to work out,” Cole said regarding the assembly’s newest arrival.
Stapleton can show up to the assembly and get nominated from the floor, at which point he could get to speak last— perhaps a prime slot.
Already, one Republican going through the assembly, Steve Barlock, is campaigning to get the speaking order re-set as to not give defacto favorable treatment to Stapleton. Barlock also seized on the news that Stapleton, who manages the state’s finances as treasurer, spent big bucks on a petition drive only to see it blow up in his face because he hired a firm that apparently couldn’t do the job.
On Tuesday, Stapleton sent a letter to the Colorado Secretary of State saying he has “no confidence” in the firm his campaign hired to gather petitions for him. He said, as his rival Doug Robinson earlier alleged, that he believes the firm engaged in fraudulent conduct by using petition circulators who misrepresented themselves. Colorado has strict rules about who can circulate petitions. Stapleton also said the firm he hired lied to his campaign.
“A little shady there,” Barlock said about Stapleton’s relationship with the company. “Shady people hang around shady people.”
Barlock also wonders whether Colorado Springs businessman Barry Farah, who has never run for office before, has ties to the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers network and got into the race just weeks before the assembly, is an establishment stalking horse for Stapleton. He wouldn’t be surprised, Barlock says, if Farah ends up dropping out on Saturday and throwing his support behind the state treasurer.
For his part, Farah said in a statement he has heard “great feedback” from delegates since he got in the race and what he has to share with them on Saturday won’t change. While Farah didn’t pile on Stapleton, his campaign manager, Jefferson Thomas, did.
“Barry would never spend $250,000 of anybody’s money without personally ensuring the process was managed professionally and handled legally,” Thomas said in a statement.
Coffman, too, joined the dogpile on Stapleton, saying in a statement released by her campaign that Stapleton can’t be trusted to play by the rules. “The truth is, Walker tried to avoid addressing Republican delegates and got tripped up in the execution of his own political strategy,” she said. Coffman has pinned her entire campaign on going through the assembly process after first attempting to gather petitions and then ditching that effort. “Now,” she went on, “it will be up to the delegates to decide who they trust to represent their interests in the primary elections.”
Upon learning of the latest twist in this governor’s race, Lew Gaiter, the cowboy-hat-wearing commissioner from Larimer County who has so far run a low-key campaign and is scheduled to speak first at Saturday’s assembly, said Stapleton’s maneuver doesn’t change much for him.
“I’ve tried very, very hard to not say anything that could be construed as negative about my opponents,” Gaiter said. “I want to win, however, I want to win on a positive message and merit, not on money or hype or anything else like that.”
If there’s a Republican candidate for governor out there who might immediately benefit the most from the Stapleton stumble it’s Doug Robinson. The retired investment banker was first to accuse the Stapleton campaign of petition shenanigans. At first, Stapleton’s campaign dismissed the accusations; now Robinson looks prescient. Also, because his campaign turned in its signatures directly after Stapleton and Stapleton threw his out, Robinson gets to count the valid signatures of anyone who signed petitions for both his own campaign and Stapleton’s. (If a voter signs petitions for two candidates, the signature only counts for the campaign who turns them in first.) Republican Victor Mitchell, an entrepreneur and former lawmaker, is also awaiting his petitions from the Secretary of State.
On Tuesday, Robinson said he applauded Stapleton doing the right thing by pulling his petitions.
“However, this does not change the fact that this fraud was perpetrated right under Walker’s nose,” Robinson said. “This fraud was so egregious that my team uncovered it as part of the due diligence of our own operation. It strains credulity to believe that no one on Walker’s team was aware of these abuses before last night.”
In Washington, D.C., the Democratic Governor’s Association mocked a face plant from a candidate it likely fears making a general election ballot. Colorado is a purple swing state Democrats certainly want to keep in the hands of a Democratic governor.
That accusations of fraud in the petition-gathering process in this governor’s race have hobbled a perceived front-runner shouldn’t be lost on observers of Republican politics in Colorado. In 2016, the large race for U.S. Senate became a raging dumpster fire after media and investigators uncovered fraudulent signatures that led to criminal charges and a conviction.
That year, three Republicans had to sue their way onto the ballot because of problems with their petitions and a general narrative of one giant bungle took hold throughout the primary, overshadowing anything else. “One fiasco after another,” is how the chairman of the Fremont County GOP described the race at the time. “It turns me off,” said another county Republican chair.
Prior to this latest petition bombshell, while the GOP primary has been big news along the Front Range, in other parts of Colorado even plugged-in voters aren’t yet paying too much attention.
“It seems like people are kind of apathetic about the governor deal,” says Stan White, who runs the Republican Party in Las Animas County. He said the number of candidates in the race— there are eight, and “not even close” he said when asked if he could name them— likely has something to do with it.
“I just don’t feel like there’s a lot of excitement about it,” he said.
In Denver, though, GOP politicos were left stunned by the sudden turn of events just days before their party gathers for its largest event of the year.
Dick Wadhams, a longtime Republican consultant and former state party chairman, sees Saturday’s assembly now as a three-way shootout between Stapleton, Coffman and Farah. There’s a possibility, he said, that with three others in the running who could peel off delegate votes, one candidate could potentially take the whole ballgame.
Who that might be is anyone’s guess. Saturday’s assembly, he said, “is honestly going to be a barroom brawl, and I think anything could happen.”